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Summary:

All Macs released in recent years support true surround sound via optical out, but you need a home theater system to take advantage. Luckily, the Turtle Beach PX5 gaming headset provides an alternative that’s quieter, better for small spaces, and probably cheaper for Mac HTPC setups.

pX5-feature

All new and recent Macs (since the Power Macintosh G5 in 2003) come equipped with optical audio out, something not every Mac owner may be aware of. Using a mini-stereo adapter, Mac owners can stream full 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound with using a TOSLINK digital audio cable. But to do that, you need a receiver or speakers capable of decoding the signal. A decent quality full home theater audio system can cost many hundreds, or even thousands of dollars, and might be too loud if your system is in a small area.

Turtle Beach recently introduced a wireless gaming headset called the PX5, which features a mini receiver designed for use with PS3 or Xbox 360 gaming consoles, but it actually supports Macs, too, thanks to the optical audio out I mentioned above. I spent a week testing out the PX5 with my Mac HTPC setup, and here are my thoughts.

Not Cheap — In Both Good and Not So Good Ways

The PX5 system is the mostly costly offering in Turtle Beach’s lineup of gaming headsets, with an MSRP of $249.95. You can get it cheaper if you look around (Amazon has it listed for $212.99 as of this writing), but while it’s still not inexpensive even then, consider that Beats by Dre or Bose headphones will probably cost nearly as much, if not more.

Turtle Beach also packs a lot of value into that $250 price tag. The PX5 is wireless, communicating with the receiver base via 2.4 GHz RF signal. It supports pass-through audio if you want to use it in combination with a full home theater receiver, and it also offers Bluetooth connectivity. Finally, it’s fully programmable; the only problem is its programming software is Windows-only.

Downsides

Windows-only programming is a drag, but the presets Turtle Beach preloads onto the PX5 are probably adequate for most users anyway. Plus, if you have Windows installed on your computer via Boot Camp or virtualization software, you can still take advantage of this feature.

Also, as I mentioned, the PX5 communicates via 2.4 GHz RF. That means if your home wireless network is also on the same frequency, there can be some interference. In my usage with an older 2.4 GHz-only Apple AirPort Extreme router, I could hear audible clicks infrequently when I was very close to the router (within three feet), or when I was transferring large amounts of data over the network. But when I swapped out the router with my newer, dual-band switching 2.4 and 5.0 GHz AirPort Extreme, I heard nary a whimper of static while using the headset.

Note that in all cases, it’s recommended that the PX5 receiver is in the same room where you’re using the headset, and that line-of-sight seems to guarantee an optimal connection. Even with all these caveats, I found the connection was consistently strong, and even the occasional interference I experienced under the worst conditions was more than bearable.

Finally, note that the PX5 natively supports only Dolby Digital 5.1 and 7.1 for true surround sound. If your source uses DTS, the receiver will digitally process it using Dolby Pro Logic II technology, which, while not optimal, in my experience also didn’t detract from the experience enough to make me give it too much thought.

Strong Suits

First, the PX5 is remarkably versatile. It works very well not only with Mac home theatre setups, but also with PCs (so long as they have optical audio output), with the PS3 and the Xbox, and also with Bluetooth devices.

One really cool feature is that you can connect the PX5 to your iPhone as a Bluetooth headset (independent of the RF receiver), while also using it with an optical source through the RF connection. That means you can use it to talk on your Phone while playing games or watching a movie, by muting one and switching to the other on the fly. Or, you can stream stereo music via A2DP from your iPhone or computer to the PX5. In fact, as a stereo Bluetooth headset, I’ve yet to come across another product that matches the PX5 for sound quality. The detachable boom mic it comes with is also more than up to the task of making voice calls. Unfortunately, there aren’t any iPod controls on the headset for use with the iPhone, iPod touch or iPad.

The PX5 is also great for small spaces and for people who don’t want to clutter up their entertainment space with wires, big stereo system components, and speakers. It has about the same footprint as your average contemporary wireless router, or like a slightly thicker DVD case. The fewer wires I have in my office/gaming space, the better.

While the PX5 doesn’t offer the ability to connect more than one headset to the wireless receiver, it does provide a 3.5mm jack that can be used with any stereo headphones at the same time as the wireless headset, complete with virtual surround sound. That means if you have a friend over and want to watch a movie together, you can do it without any particularly complicated additional setup.

One last point that may be contentious as a strength: the PX5 uses regular AA batteries, both alkaline and rechargeable. Some may prefer a built-in rechargeable battery, since this device does tend to use a lot of power, but I’ve managed to get a lot of usage time out of a set of 2 AAs. The alkalines it shipped with lasted pretty near the 15-hour life in the official specs, and even a pair of well-worn rechargeables I’ve been using since have done very well so far. I prefer not having to deal with a proprietary battery when it comes time to seek out a permanent replacement, since the PX5 seems to be a product I could be using for a very long time.

Verdict

If you like watching movies on your Mac, and you’re looking for a surround sound experience that won’t break the bank or draw noise complaints from your neighbors, the Turtle Beach PX5 is a very good option. Consider that you get a high-quality Bluetooth headset in the bargain, as well as probably the best gaming headset on the market, and the value picture gets that much better.

 
  1. $249.95??, wooow…

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  2. do you need a special cable for the macbook pro optical audio out, or is one included in the box with the headset? Thanks!

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